Successful event outcomes, strange web traffic, and the psychology of motivation

better event outcomes Understanding the psychology of motivation can help us create better event outcomes. I’ll illustrate with a story about strange traffic on this very web site…

The other day, I noticed a weird periodic surge of interest in one of my blog posts. Every January 1, page views for this post—but no other—spiked way up and stayed high for 7 – 10 days. Then they went back to normal year-round levels.

It took some head scratching before I finally realized what was going on. The article describes an obscure method for quickly deleting all emails on Apple devices—something Apple didn’t make easy until recently. Apparently, every January thousands of people all over the world stare at the 6,000 emails stuck on their iPhones. They resolve that this is the time they’re finally going to clean them up. So they Google “delete mail”, find my highly ranked post (currently, out of 228 million results I’m #2) click on it and, voila, lots of page views.

Well, lots of page views for a week or so. Then, what I call the New Year’s Resolutions Effect becomes…well, ineffective. People forget about their New Year’s resolutions and go on with their lives.

Why we are so poor at keeping resolutions

Why are we so poor at keeping resolutions? While scientific research into the psychology of motivation doesn’t currently offer a definitive explanation, there are some plausible theories. One of them, nicely explained by psychologist Tom Stafford, is proposed by George Ainslie in his book Breakdown of Will (read a forty-page “précis” here).

As Tom puts it:

“…our preferences are unstable and inconsistent, the product of a war between our competing impulses, good and bad, short and long-term. A New Year’s resolution could therefore be seen as an alliance between these competing motivations, and like any alliance, it can easily fall apart.
Tom Stafford, How to formulate a good resolution

And to make a long story short, he shares this consequence of Ainslie’s theory:

“…if you make a resolution, you should formulate it so that at every point in time it is absolutely clear whether you are sticking to it or not. The clear lines are arbitrary, but they help the truce between our competing interests hold.”

For years, I’ve used this observation to create better event outcomes. Here’s what I do.

If you’ve done a good job, by the close of your event participants will be fired up, ready to implement good ideas they’ve heard and seen. This is prime time for them to make resolutions to make changes in their professional lives. So how can we maximize the likelihood they will make good resolutions—and keep them!

A personal introspective

Close to the end of my events I use a personal introspective to give every attendee an opportunity to explore changes they may want to make in their life and work as a result of their experiences during the conference. (For full details of how to hold a personal introspective, see my book The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action.)

At the start of the personal introspective, each attendee writes down (privately) the changes they want to make. Before they do so, I explain a crucial question they will need to answer later in the process: “How will you know when these changes happen?” I give them several relevant examples of vague versus measurable goals and actions, like those below.

PI Goals and Actions 2

It turns out that including the question “How will you know when these changes happen?” and giving relevant examples beforehand is very important. If you don’t, I’ve learned that hardly anyone will come up measurable resolutions that make it crystal clear whether you are succeeding or not.

Even with the directions and support, some people find it very difficult to come up with measurable, time-bound answers. Which is one of the reasons why every personal introspective has a follow-up small group component. There, they can share and get help on their goals. But that’s material for another blog post.

Over the years I’ve received enough feedback about the effectiveness of personal introspectives to know they can be a powerful tool for better event outcomes. As predicted by the psychology of motivation, helping participants make specific, measurable, and time-bound resolutions that are easier to keep is a vital component.

Photo attribution: Flickr user chrish_99

The Mars Rover, cognitive science, and conference design

cognitive science conference design
A cool composite image of the Mars Curiosity Rover

What can we learn from cognitive science about conference design?

The Mars Rover

I love that the Rover that landed on Mars this month is called Curiosity. It speaks to a fundamental aspect of being human, a drive that makes us build an incredible machine and send it 350 million miles to explore another world. And yet…

“From the perspective of evolution [curiosity] appears to be something of a mystery. We associate evolution with ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ traits that support the essentials of day-to-day survival and reproduction. So why did we evolve to waste so much time? Shouldn’t evolution have selected for a species which was – you know – a bit more focussed?”
Tom Stafford in a recent BBC Future column.

Why are we so curious?

“Why are we so curious?” asks Tom (who’s a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield by the way, hence the British spelling.) He explains:

“The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species called neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the ‘retention of juvenile characteristics’. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals…Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny…And of course the lifelong capacity to learn is the reason why neoteny has worked so well for our species. Our extended childhood means we can absorb so much more from our environment, including our shared culture. Even in adulthood we can pick up new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking, allowing us to adapt to new circumstances.”

You’re probably thinking: what has this got to do with conference design? Just one more quote from Tom:

“Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. Fortunately, in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future…Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.”

Design curiosity into conference programs

And so we arrive at conference design. Regrettably, far too many conference programs are designed with the assumption that someone, somehow knows what we need to know. Curiosity needed and evoked: not much!

A much better alternative is to create a conference that 1) addresses the issues that participants really want to learn about and 2) uncovers the interesting topics, knowledge, and experience that individual attendees possess that are of value to a significant number of their peers. That’s what well-designed participant-driven and participation-rich events do. Curiosity needed and evoked: lots!

What can we learn from cognitive science about conference design? If we are wired to be curious, let’s stop running conferences that attempt to control our learning. Instead, let’s create conferences that feed our curiosity. Our events will be all the better for it!

Photo attribution: Flickr user tjblackwell. Here’s the full story of this composite image.